Easier for Bachelet to win than to govern

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 27,2013


Three months before the November 17 election, former president Michelle Bachelet remains the overwhelming favourite to win in Chile. However, it will be easier for her to win than to change the institutional setup in place since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. As she campaigns on a platform of radical transformations, Bachelet is raising expectations beyond what she will be able to accomplish.


After leaving office in March of 2010 with 80 percent approval, Bachelet remained the most popular politician in Chile. During her two-year appointment as the head of the UN Women, Bachelet avoided the social unrest and student protests that put her successor, Sebastián Piñera, on the defensive. Elected in a runoff in January 2010, Piñera became the first right-of-centre president since the dictatorship. He won the election in spite of Bachelet’s popularity, primarily because a majority of Chileans wanted to punish the centre-left Concertación coalition, in power since 1990, for failing to renew its leadership. Declining support and trust in political parties helped Piñera capitalize on the discontent of Chileans otherwise satisfied with the roadmap of the country’s two decades of economic growth. However, as his government failed to deliver on the promised efficiency and right-wing political parties showed the same appetite for patronage as Concertación parties, Piñera’s became the most unpopular president in modern Chilean history. Despite the government’s claims that the Piñera administration was more effective in generating growth and creating employment than Bachelet’s, a majority of Chileans seem eager to see the return of the former president.


The student protests that rocked the country in 2011 reflected discontent with the educational system, (which consolidated under Concertación governments) which puts a heavy burden on students seeking to obtain quality tertiary education. The protests also reflected dissatisfaction with a government that seemed more concerned with businesspeople and the rich than with workers and the poor. Though the Piñera administration correctly claimed that many of the problems people were protesting against were created under Concertación governments—including Bachelet’s—the fact that Piñera failed to deliver on his promise of efficiency and meritocracy ended up costing him dearly.


Since her return to become the Concertación candidate — now known as Nueva MayoríaBachelet has kept a large lead in the polls. She easily won the June 30 presidential primaries, gathering more votes than all the other candidates combined. Her overwhelming victory indirectly deepened a political crisis in the ruling coalition that resulted in changing twice its presidential candidate. After selecting former legislator and labour minister Evelyn Matthei as the candidate, the Alianza coalition now hopes to force Bachelet into a runoff. Yet, recent polls indicate an open race for second place, with former presidential candidate Marco Enriquez-Ominami and independent economist Franco Parisi moving up in the low teens, while Matthei’s support remains in the low 20s. Regardless, if not in the first round, Bachelet will easily win in the runoff.


It will be easier for Bachelet to win than to govern. She has made promises that will be difficult to fulfill. Institutional constraints and fiscal restraints will limit her range of options. Given Chile’s unique electoral system, Bachelet’s coalition will find it difficult to transform an electoral majority into an overwhelming majority in Congress. Since each district elects two legislators, her coalition will need twice as many votes in every district as the Alianza to clinch both seats. Though the Concertación will likely still win majority control of both chambers, it will be short of the super-majorities required to change key legislation and to amend the Constitution. In order to win a two-thirds majority in the Senate, the Concertación would need to get 17 of the 20 seats up for election. In the Chamber of Deputies, it will need to win 80 seats, more than it has ever obtained. Though she will have enough support to pass tax reform, which she has campaigned on and has linked to her promise to move toward universal access to free tertiary education, she will not be able to change the Constitution without the support of the Alianza coalition.


Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, Chilean democracy has been consolidated within the constraints imposed by the authoritarian 1980 Constitution. Though it has been reformed several times—and most of its authoritarian enclaves have been removed—the Constitution still makes it very difficult for an electoral majority to unilaterally change institutions and to tamper with fiscal responsibility. It is highly unlikely that Bachelet will be able to do what her predecessors could not do. Since bargaining with the opposition is essential to pass reforms, she will have to make concessions and abandon many of her more radical promises. Though the electorate has shown some enthusiasm for more radical reforms — especially on free access to education — the institutional setup makes it impossible for reforms to be anything other than gradual in Chile.


Thus, almost regardless of the majority she gets, Bachelet will probably not have the power she needs to transform Chile as radically as her campaign promises are leading many to believe.